A Very Bourgeois Post on Buying a House

Last weekend, I was at my parents’ house and I saw a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons on the shelf. I’ve stared at the book since I was a kid, but I never bothered to pick it up, much less read it. In the last several years, though, my friend Adina has been singing the praises of Durrell as one of our great writers of place. So I decided to spirit the book away with me back to Brooklyn. (Sorry, Mom! I also have your copy of Rebecca.)

I’m glad I did. It’s a terrific read. I’ve just finished the chapter on Durrell buying a house in Cyprus. I haven’t laughed out loud, that loudly, in some time. The elaborate dance between the broker, the seller (really, an extended family in a Cyprus village), and Durrell, as they argue about the house over the totem of the house key, had me in tears.

She [the seller] wore the white headdress and the dark skirt of the village woman, and her breasts were gathered into the traditional baggy bodice with a drawstring at the waist, which made it took like a loosely furled sail. She stood before us looking very composed as she gave us good morning. Sabri [the broker] cleared his throat, and picking up the great key very delicately between finger and thumb—as if it were of the utmost fragility—put it down again with the air of a conjurer making his opening dispositions. ‘We are speaking about your house,’ he said softly, in a voice ever so faintly curdled with menace. ‘Do you know that all the wood is…’ he suddenly shouted the last word with such force that I nearly fell off my chair, ‘rotten!’ And picking up the key he banged it down to emphasize the point.

The comedy here is that the wood is not rotten at all—in fact, the broker had just been praising the Anatolian timber as some of the hardest wood in the world—and everyone knows it. Yet they argue as if they don’t.

The Durrell got me to thinking about another literary treatment of buying a house: those hilarious opening chapters in A Hazard of New Fortunes where Isabel and Basel March slowly watch their ballooning fantasy of the perfect home in Manhattan settle back down to earth, and Isabel finds her sense of what is absolutely necessary in a house gradually shrinking to fit the reality of their finances. Adam Gopnick had a smart article in The New Yorker a few years back on this wonderful mis-en-scène.

I’m not sure what it is about the act of buying a house that makes it so amenable to story-telling. It can certainly be funny, almost comically absurd: the elaborate performance of bargaining, the histrionic prices, the outsized battle between fantasy and reality, the marriage of money and home, family and market.

Maybe it’s the last that makes buying a house such a tempting source for literature: it stages a confrontation between one’s sense of what is personal and intimate with some of the most impersonal forces in our society. Buying a house is supposed to be a shrewd move, yet it’s caught up in embarrassing fantasies and all kinds of family romance. (That’s certainly what you find in Howard’s End, another wonderful novel about property. Didn’t Lionel Trilling talk about this?) I suppose in this respect it’s a bit like being a professor in an academic department, which is a literary genre in its own right: on the one hand, it’s just a job; on the other hand, your colleagues are a bit like family, around for a very long time.

Out of curiosity: what are some other depictions of buying a house in literature that you’d recommend?


  1. s. wallerstein December 29, 2013 at 4:14 pm | #

    How about Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates?

    There’s a scene about how a real estate agent talks them into buying the house, and as I recall (I don’t have a copy of the book), the real estate agent’s view of the couple and their problems is an important narrative point of view.

    • Corey Robin December 29, 2013 at 4:19 pm | #

      I’ll check with my wife. This is one of her favorite all-time books.

      • s. wallerstein December 29, 2013 at 4:22 pm | #

        It is not a cheery book, but is a very insightful one, the kind of book that almost hurts to read because at least in my case I saw aspects of myself that I did not want to see.

  2. Shawn Hamilton December 29, 2013 at 4:51 pm | #

    The way the “House of Sand and Fog” treated real estate was interesting – both characters trying to redeem themselves through the buying or preservation of property. I also read a book years ago – before the Recession – called ‘Driving Over Lemons’ which tells a somewhat upbeat/fish out of water story of a couple buying a farm house in Southern Spain. I want to re-read that one and see how it holds up.

  3. Ramanan December 29, 2013 at 4:53 pm | #

    In case you happen to know a slight bit of Hindi, the movie Gharonda (1977) is an excellent one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gharaonda

    Maybe you can find a DVD with subtitles.

  4. Rob December 29, 2013 at 4:53 pm | #

    I really love “A House for Mr. Biswas,” by VS Naipaul. It takes place among the Indian community of Trinidad, a community I only know through Naipaul’s writing. The story covers his entire life and the house only comes in at the end. The actual purchase of the house may be the least dramatic aspect of the story. He finally buys one, then dies fairly soon after. There is a dark irony over the whole story.

    • Krishan Bhattacharya December 30, 2013 at 11:58 am | #

      One if the greatest novels I have ever read. The prologue ends with the narration praising Mr Biswas’ ownership of the house, but as I recall he doesn’t buy it, but hire someone to build it. The staircase was outside, running along the back wall.
      It’s the furniture that features so heavily in the novel, more than in any other fiction that I know of. The typewriter, the coat rack, the kitchen safe. One of the themes of the novel is how Mr. Biswas moves his family from place to place, and how the various moves track the upheavals in their life, and Mr Biswas’s ambitions and failures. At each stage, Naipaul catalogues the furniture, detailing the order and manner of each piece’s acquisition, and the changes it underwent. It’s a surprisingly effective and memorable motif. I remember the history of the Biswas family’s furniture better than my own,

  5. Roquentin December 29, 2013 at 4:59 pm | #

    It’s about building a house rather than buying one, but The Rise and Fall of Silas Lapham is one of the best books of the Gilded Age (a historical era which closely resembles our own). It’s main focus is the ephemeral nature of material wealth rather than the act of buying, but yields many of the same insights.

    • David Bonney December 29, 2013 at 8:32 pm | #

      And, to combine building with buying (the purchase of James Collins’s “uncommonly fine” shanty for board lumber at a cost of $4.25), Thoreau’s Walden stands out.

  6. Claud Alexander December 29, 2013 at 5:49 pm | #

    Hope this is not too obvious, but, in terms of “the outsized battle between fantasy and reality” and how “buying a house is supposed to be a shrewd move, yet it’s caught up in embarrassing fantasies and all kinds of family romance,” Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas is very good.
    Might seem a little too subaltern in terms of class and place, but I don’t really think there’s that much of a difference in the kind of neuroses that come into play when thinking about buying (or, worse yet, building) a house. Mutatis mutandis, “The tabloids always talk as if only the rich committed adultery. One really can’t imagine a more snobbish assumption.”

  7. Andrew December 29, 2013 at 6:15 pm | #

    For a decidedly not bourgeois perspective on home buying, albeit caricatured in his way, see the Steinbeck novella Tortilla Flat.

  8. julie turngren December 29, 2013 at 7:14 pm | #

    I read Bitter Lemons 8 times some years ago. In about 2000 I opened the SF Chronicle and learned that Sabri, who apparently operated on both sides of the law, was sitting in his office (in a wheelchair because he had been shot previously) and was shot to death by a rival.

  9. Bob December 29, 2013 at 9:47 pm | #

    JR by William Gaddis; although it’s about buying everything.

  10. BillR December 30, 2013 at 1:19 pm | #
  11. Nathan December 30, 2013 at 6:03 pm | #

    There was an article in the Cahiers du Cinéma in the early or mid 80s (if I remember right by Pascal Bonitzer) about how a significant share of the wave of late 70s/early 80s american horror films had to do with middle-class anxiety at the devaluation of the home that has been bought. Many of the films start with a family moving into a new home, only to find out that it is horrible in some haunted way (or some psycho killer lives in the neighbourhood). Not laugh-out-loud material for sure, but maybe a more Halloween approach to what you mention?

  12. Bennett Lerner December 30, 2013 at 10:28 pm | #


    Sent from my iPhone


  13. Malcolm Schosha December 31, 2013 at 5:34 pm | #

    The Canadian composer, Colin McPhee (1900-1964), went to Bali to study its gamelan music. He wrote book, A House in Bali, and from page 83 he describes buying land and building a house there in the village of Sayan.

  14. Bart January 3, 2014 at 2:19 pm | #

    Richard Ford’s “Independence Day” has many funny bits with his hero Frank Bascombe as a real estate agent. One great sketch concerns Frank’s attempt to sell a house abutting a cemetery.

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